Farmers' markets attract city dwellers the way clover fields draw bees. Every major Canadian city has at least one, and since colonial days they have been a favourite tool of city planners seeking to develop new communities or rejuvenate rundown parts of town.
Though farmers' markets traditionally have not been money-making commercial real estate ventures, a spate of new permanent structures suggests they have a new role as a popular anchor for urban redevelopment to lure both tourists and residents as the buy-local food movement gathers momentum across North America.
"They may make lots of money for the vendors and for businesses in the area around them, but the markets themselves don't usually make money," said Keith Tufts, lead architect for the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market that opened in 2010.
Halifax's market history dates back to a royal proclamation in 1750 that approved the establishment of the first official farmers' market in North America. By contrast, Granville Island Market began operating in Vancouver on the south side of False Creek under the Granville Street Bridge in the 1970s.
New markets are usually built with property and financial aid from government. But they also rely on support from vendors, farmers, local residents and other interested parties, as the Fulton Street Farmers' Market in Grand Rapids, Mich., did when it sold personalized bricks to raise capital to build a new covered market and public square recently.
Other new market buildings have been erected in recent years in London, where a new market was built in a square that has held a farmers' market since 1853 and in Saskatoon, which opened its first covered market building in a prime redevelopment area known as River Landing on a bank of the South Saskatchewan River.
The Halifax Port Authority Development initiated the $13-million Seaport market, in part, to serve its growing cruise ship business. Almost a quarter of a million cruise passengers arrived in the harbour last year and one of the first things they saw from the towering multi-storey ships was Seaport's landscaped roof, Mr. Tufts said.
"My favourite part of the building is the green roof," he said. "The view from it is spectacular. And even though it's more expensive to put a deck over a roof, it protects the structure. Normally a roof has to be replaced every 15 to 20 years, but with the green roof protecting it, this one should last twice as long."
It is an important attraction and is also rented for weddings and other functions.
The ambitious market development was designed to meet and exceed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum standards and features state-of-the-art sustainability treatments such as wind-turbine-powered outdoor lighting, a combined geothermal-solar energy system, grey water recycling and interior ceilings and other furnishings made from wood recovered after Hurricane Juan toppled trees in 2003.
"I love walking through the market and hearing people talk about 'Juan wood,' " said Mr. Tufts, who arranged to use the wood after a local company salvaged Halifax's hurricane-felled trees. His firm, Lydon Lynch Architects, now has its office on the market's second floor.
"The great thing is that the farmers were 100 per cent behind sustainability because that's the world they live in," he said. "Out on their farms they waste nothing. Everything is valuable. They're dealing with a finite amount of resources and they understand the value of being in a green building that's energy-responsible."
The building is on the site of an old warehouse and is down the street and around the corner from the city's historic market located in an old stone brewery near downtown Halifax, which continues to operate on Saturdays. Seaport, which is open six days a week year round, was built as the centrepiece of a port lands rejuvenation project.
The market is packed with locals on most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and ranks as one of the three most popular tourist sites in the city, Mr. Tufts said. Cruise passengers stream through the market but are so well fed on the ships they prefer arts and crafts to food.
The vendor board, which has a 40-year lease on the Port Authority building and operates the market, carries a larger mortgage than most other farmers' markets and is in talks now with creditors about refinancing options, said board president Chris de Waal, whose shop, Getaway Farms Classic Butcher, sells grass-fed beef from his family's farm.
"We've had lots of support but we really put our big boy pants on with this project and there's still lots of things we've got to learn," Mr. de Waal said. "We're figuring out how to give Halifax the market it wants."
To increase traffic flow during the week, the board is working with Project for Public Spaces, a New York City non-profit that specializes in creating and improving markets and other public spaces.
In Grand Rapids, the idea for a new version of the Fulton Street Market emerged during neighbourhood plan discussions. The existing market was founded in 1922 and now consists of a concrete pad on which 70 to 80 vendors sell from a makeshift setup using trucks and tarps, said Ted Lott, of Lott3Metz Architecture.
The new covered market and public plaza will cost about $3-million to build and is scheduled to open at a site about two and half kilometres from downtown Grand Rapids near residential neighbourhoods.
"Farmers are excited to have a permanent shed where they can operate year round," Mr. Lott said. "I think they'd all had enough of tarps full of rain collapsing on them."
"One of the unintended consequences was that farmers began thinking about the new building and they wanted to extend their season," he said. Vendors who normally stopped selling around the beginning of October began thinking about what they planted, how they stored produce and using greenhouses so they could sell longer.
"They were very ingenious and it will mean the city will have a better selection of fresh, local produce year round," said Mr. Lott, who first started going to the market as a child with his mother. In turn, the local food movement has also been an important support to the development of the new market, he said.
"That focus on locally grown food has certainly benefited their [the farmers'] growth over the past few years and the project would have had a much tougher road had that ethic not risen up. It certainly helped with fund raising, too."
The market will open in May and it already has a waiting list of vendors eager to rent space. For now, it seems the demand for farmers' markets continues to be strong.
Some remarkable farmers' markets
Granville Island Market, Vancouver
Vibrant island with food market, art shops, restaurants, brewery, theatre, hotel and an art college. The market is built near the spot where the city's first covered market opened in 1908 in a grand building with two bell towers.
Highlight: Fresh seafood.
Open: Year round, seven days/week.
Saskatoon Farmers' Market
Opened in 2007 as an anchor building in the redevelopment of prime riverfront property called River Landing, in downtown Saskatoon.
Highlight: Fresh Saskatoon berries in season.
Open: Year round, Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday, some shops open seven days a week.
Jean-Talon Market, Montreal
One of North America's largest open-air markets.
Highlight: Named for the French governor who sought to shift the colony's economic base in the mid-1600s from fur trading to agriculture by encouraging settlement and bringing the filles de roi.
Open: Year round, seven days/week.
St. Lawrence Market, Toronto
The historic South Market is built around one of Toronto's first town halls and contains remnants of prison cells from the early 1800s. The North Building, opened in the 1960s, houses a traditional farmers market and flea market on weekends.
Highlight: Plans are under way to replace the north building with a four-storey steel and glass structure housing court rooms and administrative offices on floors above the public market.
Open: Year round South Building: Tuesday-Saturday; North Building: Farmers market – Saturday, Antiques market – Sunday.
Guelph Farmers' Market
Today's market sits in the middle of Market Square, the spot where the city's first land was cleared.
Highlight: The only building included in the John Galt's first plan for the city in 1827. Mr. Galt wanted a market built to sell local produce and to raise the price of surrounding land owned by his Canada Company.
Open: Saturdays 7 a.m.-noon.
Covent Garden Market, London, Ont.
Named after London, England's famous West End farmers market, now home to the Royal Opera House, of the same name, and a popular tourist area. In the musical My Fair Lady, cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle meets Professor Henry Higgins in a chance encounter outside Covent Garden. In Ontario, London's original farmers' market was once at the heart of the city but the downtown core has now shifted several blocks away.
Highlight: Today's farmers' market opened in 1999 on the site of the original 1853 covered farmers' market and public square.
Open: Covered market building – year round, seven days/week. Outdoor farmers' market – Thursday and Saturday, May to December, weather permitting.